In the mid-1970s, nobody had as big an impact on sports car racing than John Greenwood and his widebody Corvette racers. One of Greenwood’s Corvettes, the 1976 Spirit of Le Mans, will be one of three Corvettes featured in an “Americans at Le Mans” exhibit to be held next week at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The back story of the 1976 Spirit of Le Mans is pretty cool and we found a detailed account of the car when it was offered for sale by RM Auctions in Monterey back in 2013.
Greenwood’s widebody Corvettes first made their debut at the 1974 Detroit Autorama. The widebody design was a result of a collaboration between Greenwood and several GM insiders who included Zora Arkus-Duntov, Jerry Palmer and Randy Wittine. The widebody design used just about every horizontal surface to improve down force so that its all-aluminum Chevrolet big block V8 engines could transmit its conservative-rated 700+ horsepower directly to the road.
One of the widebody Corvettes built by Greenwood was for Rick Mancuso out of Chicago. The car was planned to run at the 1976 Rolex 24 at Daytona and then the 12 Hours of Sebring but it wasn’t delivered until just before Sebring. Mancuso was joined by John’s brother Burt as co-driver but an accident during practice then kept the car out of the 12 hour race.
During this time, Greenwood was was being lobbied by the ACO to return to racing at the 24 Hours of Le Mans that June. Greenwood’s previous campaigns with his wild Corvettes with their deep V8 roar were crowd favorites. Faced with the ongoing oil crisis and a drop in the number of entries, the French government arranged for Greenwood to be paid an appearance fee reported to be $55,000.
Greenwood’s own Corvette had been damaged at Sebring, so he turned to Mancuso who agreed to lend him his car if he could be part of the team. Also planning on joining was F1 driver Jacques Lafitte. Unfortunately, Mancuso was unable to get the time off work from his dad’s Chevrolet dealership and with Lafitte unable to race as well, Greenwood brought in his brother Burt as well as French rally driver Bernard Darniche to be co-drivers.
Mancuso’s Corvette, know rebranded as the Spirit of Le Mans, featured a livery with American and French flags and would wear the number 76 as a nod to America’s Bicentennial anniversary. The No. 76 Spirit of Le Mans qualified with a time of 3:54.6 which put the car in 9th position on the starting grid. As a comparison, last year, the class winning Corvette C7.R qualified for Le Mans with a time of 3:56.922.
Greenwood’s Corvette ran strong early in the race and the 76 Spirit of Le Mans consistently topped 220 mph on the Mulsanne Straight. It wasn’t until the 16th hour that a burst tire forced the car out of the race where it officially finished in 49th place.
When the Corvette returned to the States, Mancuso then went on to campaign it successfully in IMSA under the City of Chicago livery before the car was sold. The car would run in a number of vintage racing event and had several different owners over the years.
IN 2011, the Spirit of Le Mans was invited to the Goodwood Festival of Speed and the Le Mans Classic. Coming off a fresh restoration, the “Monster Corvette” as it was dubbed by English press appeared at Goodwood. The car now features a 600-cubic inch Chevrolet V8 with aluminum heads and a kinsler cross-ram mechanical fuel injection. The estimated 1,000 horsepower Corvette has almost all of its original body panels and the car still retains its door-mounted number identification light as it was installed for Le Mans.
The historic race car was listed for sale at the Monterey auction in 2013 with an estimate of $900,000 – $1,200,000 but it went unsold.
The Spirit of Le Mans is one of three Corvettes that will be returning to France for an “Americans at Le Mans” exhibit to be hosting at Le Mans. The exhibition features 16 cars that have made the trip across the Atlantic to challenge one of the greatest race tracks in the world. Joining the Spirit of Le Mans on its 40 anniversary of racing at Le Mans will be one of the 1960 Briggs Cunningham Corvettes as well as the 2016 Corvette C7.R that is actually the back-up chassis for Corvette Racing.
The “Americans at Le Mans” exhibition will be open to the public from Wednesday June 15th through Sunday June 19th in the Le Mans Village.
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